Every time I have a conversation with friends and colleagues about India-Pakistan, most of them complain about what they think as India’s failure to teach Pakistan a lasting lesson during the 1971 war.

I often wondered as to why did Indira Gandhi’s government let Pakistan off despite being in a dominant position during the war, which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. Available archival material suggest international pressure on India was one of the reasons why Prime Minister Gandhi could not take any decisive action against West Pakistan (today’s Pakistan).

A recent blog post by Anuj Dhar revealed damning details of India’s war objectives during the 1971 war. Anuj’s new book, CIA’s eye on South Asia, has a detailed account of what happened in 1971 and why India did not (or could not) take decisive action against West Pakistan. The book compiles declassified CIA records regarding South Asia and also reveals the reason behind the abrupt end of the Bangladesh war. I had downloaded these declassified documents last year but never read them entirely. But after reading Anuj’s blog, I decided to dig into the old records.

The declassification of vital CIA and US State Department documents relating to South Asia reveals that the American spy agency (CIA) had a vital source in Mrs Gandhi’s cabinet. CIA’s ‘reliable source’ leaked India’s war objectives to the US, thereby compromising India’s plan to teach Pakistan a lasting lesson.

The details of Mrs Gandhi’s Cabinet briefings were also known to the CIA within hours. The minutes of the National Security Council meeting in Washington on December 6, 1971 (See page 672 of the document) sheds some light on this. The CIA director Richard Helms informed the meeting that: “We have a report which covers Madam Gandhi’s strategy as delivered to her Cabinet at 11 pm on December 3, 1971……The objectives in the west (Pakistan) are to destroy Pakistan’s armour and in the east to totally liberate the area.”

An information cable of the CIA dated December 7, 1971 (See page 686 of the document) reveals details of Mrs Gandhi’s briefing to her Cabinet on the India-Pakistan war. The information, attributed to a reliable source, includes India’s war objectives as reiterated by Mrs Gandhi. They were:

  1. The quick liberation of Bangladesh
  2. The incorporation into India of the southern part of Azad Kashmir for strategic rather than territorial reasons (because India has no desire to occupy any West Pakistan territory)
  3. To destroy Pakistani military striking power so that it never attempts to challenge India in the future

The CIA report also added that the Indian Prime Minister had informed her Cabinet that India would not accept any ceasefire till Bangladesh was liberated.

Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistani political and strategic analyst, in his book Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within, says: “Mrs Gandhi asked her defence chiefs to be ready to drive into Sialkot and then proceed as deep as possible even upto Rawalpindi with the aim of destroying Pakistan. The CIA managed to get actual minutes of the meeting and passed them to Washington urgently.”

The author, however, does not mention the source of the information he has revealed in his book.

In another disclosure, the CIA director informed the Washington Special Actions Group in a meeting on December 8, 1971 (See page 694 of the document) that Mrs Gandhi had told her Cabinet that “she had expected a more balanced view from the Chinese. She expressed the hope that the Chinese would not intervene physically in the north, but said that the Soviets had said the Chinese would be able to ‘rattle the sword.’ She also said that the Soviets have promised to counterbalance any such action.”

The disclosure of India’s war objectives by the mole resulted in an aggressive policy by the US to save West Pakistan from the Indian assault.

In a meeting with the Chinese Permanent Representative to the UN (Ambassador Huang Hua) on December 10, 1971 (See page 757 of the document), Henry Kissinger (President Nixons’s NSA) said, “we have an intelligence report according to which Mrs Gandhi told her cabinet that she wants to destroy the Pakistani army and air force and to annex this part of Kashmir, Azad Kashmir, and then to offer a ceasefire. This is what we believe must be prevented and this is why I have taken the liberty to ask for this meeting with the Ambassador.”

A memorandum (dated December 11, 1971) for President Nixon by Henry Kissinger (See page 765 of the document) states: “According to a reliable source Mrs Gandhi’s staff as of Thursday was still saying that, as soon as the situation in the East is settled, India will launch a major offensive against West Pakistan and hope that all major fighting will be over by the end of the month.”

It also goes on to say that D P Dhar (See page 765-766 of the document), a close confidante of Indira Gandhi and former Ambassador to then USSR, was in Moscow to sound out the Soviets on India’s intentions towards West Pakistan.

The United States administration was absolutely convinced – thanks to the reliable source they had in Prime Minister Gandhi’s Cabinet – that India had offensive plans for West Pakistan. President Nixon, in a telephonic conversation with his National Security Assistant Henry Kissinger on December 8, 1971, said that China could be a decisive factor in restraining the Indian advance.

“The Chinese thing I still think is a card in the hole there. I tell you a movement of even some Chinese toward that border could scare those goddamn Indians to death,” he told Kissinger (See page 706 of the document).

The US even threatened the Soviet Union with a major confrontation if they did not convince India to stop the offensive. In a back channel message to then US Ambassador in Pakistan on December 10, 1971 (See page 749-750 of the document), Kissinger asks him to tell Pak President Yahya Khan that the US has issued a strong demarche to the Soviets and warned them that the US will not permit any aggression against West Pakistan.

“President added that should Indian offensive be launched in the West, with Soviet acquiescence, a US/Soviet confrontation would ensue,” Kissinger’s message further adds.

There are numerous such details in the declassified documents which clearly point towards the US concern regarding the future of West Pakistan. It would not be too far fetched to say that had the crucial details of India’s war plans remained a secret, the history of South Asia would have been totally different. The US did everything (even supplied arms to Pakistan via Iran, Jordan) to save West Pakistan and they succeeded in the end.

This brings us to the most important question. Who leaked India’s war plans?

Interestingly, India was aware of the presence of a CIA mole who leaked the war plans. This was revealed in a meeting between then Foreign Minister Swaran Singh and top US officials in 1972. In the meeting,  which took place on October 5, 1972, Singh told the US officials (See page 2, point 4 of the document) that Government of India (GOI) had its own sources and knew that CIA has been in contact with people in India in “abnormal ways”.

“GOI had information that proceedings of the Congress Working Committee were known to the US officials within two hours of meetings,” Singh told the US Secretary of State William Rogers.

Various accounts in the media have speculated about different names in the former PM’s Cabinet who might have worked for the CIA.

Jack Anderson, an American investigative journalist, reported about the existence of a CIA mole in the Indira Gandhi cabinet. Anderson got the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 1972 for his reports on US’ tilt away from India towards Pakistan during Bangladesh’s war for independence. Details regarding the mole and the information he passed on to the CIA can also be found in The Anderson Papers and The Man who kept the secrets (based on the life of CIA Director Richard Helms – Written by Thomas Powers).

Noted Indian lawyer A G Noorani, in his essay titled The CIA papers, published in the August 11-24, 2007 issue of fortnightly Frontline, states, “the mole in Mrs Gandhi’s Cabinet performed freely for the CIA all through 1971 till he was compromised. She did not sack him, however, ever forgiving of ‘human’ weakness. He survived.”

While referring to the declassified material and the above mentioned books, Noorani further says that the CIA had penetrated the Indian Government at every level. The agency received reports on “troops movements, logistics, strategy, and even some of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s secret conversations.”

“Was it not a matter of concern that her anxious queries to the Soviet Ambassador and his replies reached Henry Kissinger’s table while the war was on,” Noorani inquires.

While all the available information points towards a possible mole in Mrs Gandhi’s Cabinet during the 1971 war, we still don’t know his identity. I won’t speculate on the names here but the Indian Government should learn from the US and declassify old records.

Anuj, meanwhile, had filed an RTI application with the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of External Affairs to seek information about the alleged mole in Mrs Gandhi’s Cabinet. But as always, the request has been turned down.

Withholding all the information since independence by giving lame excuses that declassifying it might affect India’s foreign relations with other countries is not acceptable. The nation has a right to know the information surrounding such an important episode.